Tauranga has moved from a state of democracy + no sustainability, to a state of no democracy + no sustainability. We are looking for something better than either of those options: democracy + sustainability.
While many Tauranga residents are looking forward to the opportunity to elect councillors in 2024, the risk is that the return to elected democracy will result in a backlash that sees some positive initiatives swept away along with some of the unpopular and expensive growth projects.
Reflect on whether a theoretical scenario of autocratic rulers delivering a sustainable city is better than democratic governance delivering an unsustainable city and you’ll realise that is ultimately a false choice, because:
a) Our current unelected rulers are driven by growth, not sustainability
b) We can’t get genuine sustainability without democracy
Sustainability is, in theory, possible in non-democratic societies, with autocratic rulers making altruist, evidence-based decisions that optimise economic, social and environmental sustainability. Yet there is always the possibility that there will be a backlash that rejects the authoritarian regime and their policies.
Sustainability and democracy are ideally tightly interwoven. The views of local people are vitally important, and need to inform and be weighed against the most economically, socially and environmentally sustainable outcomes.
If there is a clash between any of those factors, it is the role of wise governance to determine the correct balance. That requires good, unbiased information and calm, open-minded decision-making, based on the evidence and tested by ongoing engagement with local communities.
That has not been happening in Tauranga. It also wasn’t happening before Tauranga lost its elected councillors, although the signs of change were there. There were increasing discussions in the council chambers around the viability of the growth model and the SmartGrowth strategy.
This was seen in their decision in 2020 to set up an independent Sustainability Board, to assess staff proposals and provide independent advice to councillors. Sadly, one of the Commissioners’ first decisions was to scrap that Sustainability Board, before it had even met.
Meanwhile, the powerful stakeholders in this city that have delivered us high rates, urban sprawl and traffic congestion, are embracing the loss of democracy and are seemingly unconcerned at the lack of sustainability.
For those stakeholders, if it comes down to a choice between growth and democracy, then growth wins. If it comes down to growth v sustainability, then growth wins again. In fact the pro-growth people seem to have viewed democracy and community calls for sustainability as an impediment.
It is striking that while most people we meet in Tauranga (and elsewhere) seem to want our democratic rights restored ASAP, those powerful, pro-growth stakeholders appear extremely happy with the current regime.
Here’s Scott Adams, Chair of the Urban Task Force (a property developers advocacy group) in June 2022:
“Now that the Commissioners’ term has been extended and with a fresh local MP representing Tauranga’s interests on the national stage, our members feel the momentum for positive change is starting to pick up.”
“We need a council that encourages growth, manages the expansion of infrastructure, and works collaboratively with the construction industry to ensure all our whānau have a roof over their heads. We need brave and bold leadership backed by the support of the business community. We need mixed model partnerships that allow a range of private and public investment, which will allow us to catch up on the must-haves so we can start to work towards the nice-to-haves.”
That’s pretty explicit: Growth is good for property developers, especially if the public sector funds some of that growth and the developers can make even bigger profits.
Here’s what Tauranga City Council Chief Executive Marty Grenfell said six months earlier in December 2021:
“This is the first time in 140 years that this city has had a different governance model at the helm. So we have an opportunity, a point in time, where we believe we can make the decisions, commit to an outcome and deliver the outcomes on the ground.”
Sharp Tudhope Law partner John Gordon said in that same article: “It is in the interest of the business community to have this happen because it adds value to our buildings in the city and it all grows on itself.”
These and other public comments show no concern about the loss of people’s democratic rights and no mention of sustainability. The agenda is clear: let’s get on with it and roll out the high growth plan.
In this context, there is an argument that it’s better to head in the wrong direction slowly, as there will be less waste when we come to our senses. The councillors effectively de-risked things by not planning such a big spend-up on large, high carbon growth projects. That meant less debt and hopefully more ability to invest in good community outcomes in the future.
However, neither scenario is good. Getting back to our original point, what is needed is genuine democracy + sustainability (meaning economic, social and environmental sustainability). That means rejecting the expensive, high growth economic model that has been driven by big business and property developers, in favour of community-led sustainability.
Democratic elections are an important component, but is critical to remember that they are only part of what makes a democracy. Amongst the other aspects are the need for an informed populace, with easy access to all important information. That means the media plays an important role, along with the role that we can all play these days on social media.
Democracy also depends upon comprehensive public engagement and consultation, unbiased evidence-based analysis, open-minded consideration of all options, and transparency around the decision-making process (i.e. no confidential meetings unless absolutely necessary).
Tauranga City has fallen short on many of those criteria, especially in recent times, with dozens of new plans are being rushed through council without due process, and key decisions made in confidential meetings, away from public scrutiny. Many of us find that concerning, but as discussed, others are embracing this new norm.
The Urban Task Force has stated:
“Our members and the wider community have given us consistent and strong feedback that as a city, we need to make decisions, the right ones, and just get it done.”
This cuts to the heart of the relationship between democracy and sustainability. We are pretty confident that Tauranga residents want council to make the right decisions. The question for everyone is always the same: What is the right decision?
We think the “right decision” is for our city and region to prioritise sustainable, equitable development, which meets the needs of local communities and the people already living here. And to put that ahead of any vested interests.
Of course, we want everyone to live in an affordable, warm home and to have access to modern facilities – however we note that is precisely what didn’t happen in the past decade of high growth and developer-led urban sprawl. That resulted in spiralling housing costs, increased transport costs and congestion, and increasing homelessness.
Most of all, we believe the “right decisions” come from proper democratic processes, whereby the public are fully informed and the decision-makers make transparent, evidence-based decisions.
The decisions made by councils (and central government) come down to prioritisation. Councils need to weigh up whether to fund x or y? To borrow more money to fund x, or take on less debt to fund y? Whether people should pay more rates for x or less rates for y? Or do neither and keep more money in their back pocket?
All those decisions require quality information, including a solid understanding of what the people who live here want, balanced against the needs of future generations and the natural environment. Sustainability needs to be embedded in the heart of democratic processes.
Without that, sustainability just becomes an optional add-on, a buzzword, or just greenwash. In that case, a council or business can choose to invest in an inherently unsustainable project and then dress it up as ‘sustainable’ by making a building more energy-efficient, or adding a bus lane or cycle lane onto a project that increases congestion and carbon emissions. There are many recent examples of this in Tauranga.
Sustainability means what it says: maintaining environmental, social, and economic wellbeing into the future. Spending money on infrastructure may be a great investment for the future, or the resultant debt may become a terrible burden to future generations. Understanding the difference is critically important and requires informed democratic processes.
Those democratic process shouldn’t be captured by vested interests. Councils and governments need to bend over backwards to ensure the views of our most disadvantaged and those without a loud voice are heard alongside the business interests and other ‘stakeholders’ (including NGOs like us). After all, everyone who lives here has a stake in our city.
Which brings us back to our “new governance model”, whereby the council is freed from the annoying limitations of democratically elected councillors. Where Commissioners can choose to sign off hugely expensive growth projects without a business case. Where they can work with council staff to move around Tauranga’s sports facilities like they’re pieces on a board game. Where staff talk openly about the need to “get this signed off while the Commissioners are still here”.
We agree that removing councillors makes decision-making faster and easier. However it has also resulted in an unprecedented number of rushed plans and consultation processes and plans for record levels of debt and rates increases.
What we don’t see much of is well-informed, evidence-based decision-making, made in genuine partnership with local communities. That is the foundation on which we could build a truly sustainable and equitable city. One that takes better care of our most vulnerable residents, which balances the need to fund community infrastructure with the equally important need to regenerate our natural environment, and keeps our city’s debt and people’s household rates at affordable levels.
We hope that well before the Commissioners leave our city, they take another look at their terms of reference, and focus on this final task that they were given by the Minister:
“10.7 any other tasks the Commission determines to be necessary to maintain the trust and confidence of the community in the Council.”
That clearly implies improving engagement with local communities and council committing to genuinely open-minded consultation processes. If the Commissioners can help to deliver that, then maybe (just maybe), our break from representative democracy will end up being worthwhile.